Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Absorbing Europe's Muslims
By H.D.S. Greenway March 28, 2006
DURING A discussion about Muslims in Europe at the American Academy in Berlin, where I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks this winter, a young man rose to ask a disturbing question.

''In Germany we have the most liberal constitution . . . and freedom of religion," he said. ''There is perhaps more freedom than is available in any other country of the world. But on the other hand there is a paradox which I have experienced personally as a German of Pakistani descent." For even though he had been born in Germany, spoke fluent German, and had even served in the German Army, he found Germany ''one of the most psychologically hostile countries towards Muslims."
''This is not concerning the state and the government, but concerning the hearts and minds of the German people," he said. ''There is an extremely negative attitude -- a hostile attitude towards Muslims. What can be done to overcome that and to achieve a certain kind of peaceful coexistence?"
Germany is not alone in having difficulties absorbing immigrants, especially Muslims, who make up the fastest-growing minority in Europe. Originally recruited as ''guest workers" who were supposed to go home eventually, these mostly Muslim immigrants stayed on, sent for their families, and now are in their second and third generations. And more are coming every day.
Europe simply cannot get used to the fact that it has become an immigrant target. From about 1800 to 1920, Europe exported some 85 million people to the New World. Now this trend has reversed itself, and Europe has become a net importer. Immigrants from Africa and Asia are pouring in to find the same difficulties that dark-skinned immigrants have found elsewhere in Europe, North America, and Australia.
This is not unique to Germany, but Germany did refuse to admit that it had become a country of immigrants longer than most of its neighbors. Germany said citizenship comes through German blood, not the fact that you were born in Germany. Thus a descendant of Germans from Kazakhstan, whose family may have lived in Russia since Catherine the Great, gets a warmer welcome in Germany than descendants of Turks, Moroccans, or Pakistanis, even though the latter may have been born in Germany.
This changed in 1999 when laws were passed to free up citizenship to those not of German blood. But the laws can be changed faster than minds.
The gulf between Muslims and non-Muslim Europeans is growing, especially after 9/11, the Madrid and London bombings, and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh at the hands of a Dutch-speaking Moroccan who thought van Gogh had insulted Muslims. The flap over the Danish cartoons has exacerbated this hostility, even though European Muslims did not join their co-religionists elsewhere in rioting.
Later, after the discussion at the academy, I turned on the TV news from the BBC. Two of the news presenters were South Asian women. Thinking of the young man's question, I recalled a conversation with Turkish-German politician Cem Ozdemir, now a member of the European Parliament, who had said how impressed he was with the number of dark faces he saw on British television compared with German television. And while Britain and France had plenty of immigrants playing on their national soccer teams, Germany, which will play host to the World Cup this summer, has no Germans of Turkish origin on the Germany national team -- even though Germans of Turkish origin make up the largest immigrant group in Germany. A German Turk might happily play for Berlin, for example, but when it comes to the national team he plays for Turkey. ''The best players for Turkey are from Germany," Ozdemir said.
France, too, is beginning to recognize that simply having more immigrant faces in the public eye can make a huge difference in changing anti-immigrant attitudes. Azouz Begag, a novelist and native of Lyon of Algerian descent, who now serves as minister for equal opportunity in the French government, told me how, after the November riots that shook France, public and private televisions companies were brought together to discuss how French TV might show more immigrant faces. He said that French President Jacques Chirac wanted ''to see more diversity on the screen." He conceded that the British had been more successful in this endeavor than the French.
Certainly seeing black and Hispanic faces on television has helped to break down prejudices in the United States -- a small step, perhaps, but one that can have surprisingly beneficial results.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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